12 March 1991 - Current
Mr McGUIRE (Broadmeadows) (16:01:02): Black Saturday is seared in our psyche. Flames fell from the sky. Fickle winds randomly determined life and death. One hundred and seventy-three people perished when a decade-long drought conspired with unprecedented weather conditions. Black Saturday defines Australia’s worst natural disaster and Victoria’s existential threat as one of the states most prone to wildfire in the world. Life is lived moving forward but understood looking back. Today we mourn catastrophic loss. We honour the resilience of survivors and first responders. We respect the fortitude of the decade-long quest for recovery. As bushfires now rage across Victoria we acknowledge how the sweet smell of eucalyptus leaves triggers the trauma of remembrance for those whose lives changed forever on 7 February 2009. Black Saturday also defines resilience and determination to deny that miser fate. Within days Colin French whisked me beyond the police cordon into the apocalyptic landscape of Kinglake, past the melted cars, bloated kangaroo carcasses and razed houses where only the chimneys stood in defiance. The smell of ash mixed with anguish and disbelief. His home was one of more than 2000 incinerated across the state. Branches of trees scorched black reached skyward like outstretched fingers pleading for salvation. No rescue attempt could have salvaged Black Saturday, a day Premier John Brumby accurately predicted would be the worst in Victoria’s history. Courage and resolve defined first responders who saved countless lives while confronting up to 800 fires. Many were too ferocious to fight. In Marysville every volunteer from the Country Fire Authority lost their home. Some lost loved ones. Colin, owner of the Kinglake Ranges Wilderness Camp, was returning home with his wife, Michelle, son, Darcy, daughter, Van, and Max, the Shih tzu, for the first time to sift the remains of their life on Melbourne’s green fringe. Remarkably Colin had already turned his mind to rebuilding and wanted to know if the model I had developed to connect the disconnected through lifelong learning could be adapted for Kinglake and Marysville, the town engulfed on the other side of the Great Dividing Range. He explained a key reason his family survived was because Michelle took a series of photos on the morning of Black Saturday of the pall of smoke in the distance. Colin kept ringing emergency services for updates. Responses were reassuring enough for the family to sit down to lunch. Through the kitchen window he realised the smoke had turned at Mount Disappointment to form a 50-kilometre front. He recalled: Everyone was telling us there weren’t other fires. I joined the dots. Colin grabbed a map and compass and plotted where the front was moving, reporting the shift to emergency services. The inferno was descending. There were three potential escape routes. His gut choice saved his family—the other roads led to perdition. Colin warned unsuspecting neighbours, who also evacuated. One of the revelations of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission was that amid such chaos the predictive mapping of the fires never reached firefighters on the front line. In response to this insight I called for an accord with California, another state stalked by wildfire, to deliver a world-class fire prevention, tracking, mapping and communications strategy with Victoria to provide a new template for Australia, the United States and other bushfire-prone countries. Victoria and California established an agreement in 2015 under the Andrews government. In the spirit of commemoration, learning and evolving I propose this agreement be extended to Greece, which recently suffered what has been described as Europe’s worst bushfires. Given all we know from the forensic analysis into Black Saturday and from previous disasters including Ash Wednesday, such intelligence could save lives in Australia and other countries. A life preservation accord with Greece would honour our blood ties. Need is vital and urgent. Bushfires are intrinsic to our landscape, from ragged ranges to country towns and fringe suburbs craving the beauty of the bush. Grief is living with irrational and overwhelming loss. Faith, to believe or not, is a personal privilege and constitutional right. For centuries the Greek poet Aeschylus has provided solace: 'Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God’. We cannot escape the consequences of existing with nature. To prevent future calamities, rational decision-making must triumph over politics. Colin French and his family rebuilt their lives and the wilderness centre to teach children to love the bush and cherish its plants and animals. Marysville has risen from the ashes, reborn as a postcard tourist town. We cannot change the past, but we can change the future. Our legacy from Black Saturday must be the steadfast commitment to save lives by sharing the wisdom born of tragedy.